Pub reopening all pints to a happy community

Mildred Symonds, then 86, hands a scroll to Beeston Parish Council vice-chairman Tony Whales, trans

Mildred Symonds, then 86, hands a scroll to Beeston Parish Council vice-chairman Tony Whales, transferring ownership of the village sign from the jubilee committee to the village in 1977. May Burrell, another colourful local character, is standing on Mildred’s immediate right, holding a pamphlet - Credit: Archant

Keith Skipper is delighted to see his local pub back in action

One of the most potent signposts to my Norfolk past reads a little too brazenly: "Things that used to be there".

I spent my first 18 years in a small village relying heavily on farms, fields and fresh air to keep bodies, souls and limited ambitions together.

Mechanisation ripped much of the traditional heart out of country life. A drift from the land turned into a deluge. Agriculture's lost armies vanished over lonely headlands without any of the anguish or anger unleashed by, say, closures elsewhere of coal mines or steel-making factories.

It was just something bound to happen. Norfolk had to be phlegmatic enough to put up with eerie silences where workers and banter held sway for so long and accept a major transformation to embrace change and build a new brand of community cohesion.

A brutally simplistic summary, perhaps, of parish pump adventures over the past half-century or so. A view certainly coloured by a lengthy parade of family and friends with deep roots in local soil. Even a tinge of guilt at leaving them to face the revolution without me.

For all that, I have maintained precious links with that mid-Norfolk cluster of villages around my home patch of Beeston to celebrate a lingering spirit of bucolic defiance in favour of mixing best of the old with least damaging of the new

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That leaves room to appreciate why prime agricultural land must still be used to grow crops ahead of sprouting too many houses. Why our environment desperately needs to be protected against wholesale gentrification of the countryside. Why character and community spirit remain cornerstones of worthwhile rural existence.

It's been heartening to see a blend of fundraising and old-fashioned graft bring Beeston Ploughshare back to life. The pub's chequered history in recent years included a call for this old boy to propose a reopening toast a few rounds ago.

Now the future looks much more secure after a vibrant three-year campaign by Beeston Community Enterprises to buy the pub and restore and return it to pint-pulling action. A kitchen for hot meals is planned along with a shop selling local produce, a café and function room.

I note with delight that the room to be used as a café is named in honour of May Burrell, one of Beeston and district's most formidable characters throughout my time on the local beat. Brusque, fast-talking and permanently on the edge of a knowing chuckle, she ordered all youngsters to do something useful with spare time.

Invariably, I think of her in tandem with Mildred Symonds. Both rode sit-up-and-beg bicycles and were erect pillars of the parish church. Mildred, gentle, softly-spoken and regularly fussing towards a packed larder, appeared content to let her industrious example act as sufficient inspiration.

She taught at the Church Sunday school - but she and May displayed a generous ecumenical streak when Chapel hedgerow raiders called at their doors with freshly-picked plump blackberries.

Contrasting characters with similar amounts of time to invest in children. Retired nurse Auntie May, as she was widely known, had revived village links to care for an elderly relative. Then she took on the mantle of medical all-rounder, delivering babies, tending the sick and laying out the departed.

Her matter-of-fact manner often belied a deeply caring and sensitive nature … although some would agree she had every right to let rip the night tipsy customers from the Bell pub opposite her home on The Street decided to test her nursing credentials to the full.

Wilfred Cross was persuaded to "collapse and moan" on her front doorstep while deeply concerned colleagues threw gravel at a bedroom window and called for May's expert assistance.

By the time she'd dressed and hurried downstairs to provide a swift diagnosis, the victim had made a remarkable recovery and rejoined a rolling raucous band of Bullards beer-tasters heading for their next jolly jape.

If we don't get country characters like we used to, perhaps we ought to point the finger at local cooling rather than global warming. It is much harder these days to stand out in the Norfolk crowd. Maybe the loss of so many rural pubs has to be part of a sad decline.

I don't think she had much time for such establishments .. but I trust the old-fashioned spirit of Auntie May will help the Ploughshare turn over countless fresh furrows of community fellowship.